2 May 2019
The Pedal Pedestal
Big Wheel Lift #1

This past week has been interesting.  I’ve completed the On-Off switch assembly.  This micro switch based assembly is linked to a trip lever on the Big Wheel.  The Big Wheel Lift is turned off after one revolution of the Big Wheel (12 marbles).

And I’ve got the Pedal Pedestal almost completed…should be done tomorrow.  The frame is 1/16″ Baltic Birch plywood.  The sprocket is 1/8″ Baltic Birch, handcrafted and run-in in the test stand.

This morning at 0800 I went online and ordered some drive belt poly tubing from McMaster.  I had the tubing in-hand at 1500.  Can’t beat that service.  I love dealing with McMaster.

The Big Wheel Lift #1 Project Sheet is here.

I’ve done nothing more with A Sunday Drive…but it’s still cooking in my mind and in front of me on the bench.

Regarding motors in my automata:  I’ve just come to the realization of why power cords with the “bricks” at the plug end are powering everything.  I realize now that I should be putting 12 volt motors into my automata, and then powering the automata with the correct power cord…120 volt or 240 volt.  I’ll not change the motor on Big Wheel Lift #1 (it’s 120 vac and will stay in this country).  Future automata will all be equipped with 12 volt motors.  I cannot believe it took me this many years to understand this little piece of international commerce.

The Pedal Pedestal is nearing completion

25 April 2019
Motorizing and Suppliers

Big Wheel Lift #1: I’ve been busy with this little guy…am in the process of installing the motor and the on/off mechanism.  The on/off mechanism will allow ‘push to start’ and then a full revolution later (12 marbles) the motor will be turned off.  I expect to have this creation under power (and hand crank) next week.

The Big Wheel Lift #1 project sheet can be found here.

Suppliers: As I create automata I need certain things (bearings, belts, chain, plywood, fasteners, magnets, shafts, information, motors, brass plates, etc).  Over time I’ve developed online relationships with suppliers that I like to deal with.    I’ve spent a portion of the first part of April creating a web page of Favored Suppliers.  I hope this page helps one or more of you on your own journey to create automata.

James Coffee Studios creates automata.

19 April 2019
The Big Wheel has It’s Legs

It’s been a busy two weeks.  One of things that I’ve been doing is building the biped test stand.  The test stand is motorized.  I had a problem with an eBay motor order so had to order again.  I ordered from both McMaster and from ChancsMotor (eBay).  Both motors have arrived.  I’ve powered the test stand with the Dynatech motor from McMaster.  The ChansMotor just arrived this afternoon and I must admit that I like it a lot.

So the test stand is completed and operates under power.  This enabled me to move forward with the table for Big Wheel Lift #1.  I now know what the biped power module geometry is.  In the image to the right you can see the table, legs, and the mechanical frame.  I’m in the process of building the levers and cams and sprockets and etc.  I suspect that Big Wheel Lift #1 will be operating under power within the next two weeks.

A test period will follow, with the Big Wheel operating for about 3,000 cycles as it is fine tuned.  Then disassembly and paint.  Then reassembly and test.

The Big Wheel has it’s legs!

4 April 2019
The power unit is the focus
Big Wheel Lift #1

These weeks I’ve got two projects on my workbench, A Sunday Drive and Big Wheel Lift #1.  Also, in the back of my mind, I want to write a quick article about some of my online suppliers.

Big Wheel Lift #1 has been the active working focus.  At the present time I am focused on creating the assembly that the biped will operate which in turn will power the big wheel lift.  The build is coming along nicely.  In the image to the right you see the two biped elbows.  I’m using a beautiful acoustically tanned leather…remnants from the bellows of the organ that I am building.  I’m waiting for the motor to arrive (it’s late).  The test module that I am building will put the biped and the mechanics through thousands of test cycles…so that I can know that the build will be solid and reliable.  The Big Wheel Lift #1 Project Sheet can be seen here.

A Sunday Drive has been the active ‘thinking’ focus.  At the top of my thinking process is how to have scenery scroll by as the car rolls down the road.  I think I’ve got a solution…will know more next week.  The A Sunday Drive Project Sheet can be seen here.

The biped elbows are a nice thick leather.


23 March 2019
Magnetic Shock Absorbers

I’ve had a fascination with magnetism for many decades.  In the late 60’s I created mobiles that had magnets in them.  The mobiles never stopped moving…they were very interesting.

On Big Wheel Lift #1 I was faced with the problem of absorbing the shock of moving marbles.  Two drops, and the end of the run.

I experimented for a while and then created three magnetic shock absorbers.  They function based on the principle of ‘same poles repel’.  In the image to the right, in the upper part of the lower right quadrant, you see a silver disc.  This is the top of the bottom magnet.  It is stationary.  Above it is a swinging ramp that also has a magnet in it.  The two same magnetic poles face each other…they repel each other.  The swinging ramp is held aloft by the magnetic repulsion.  When the marble drops down onto the swinging ramp it’s drop is cushioned by the magnetic repulsion…so it is an ‘easier’ drop.

I obtain my magnets from K&J Magnetics.  They are one of my treasured suppliers.  Very reasonable prices.  Always fast shipping…and I’ve never had anything back ordered.

Magnets are fun to work with.  I suspect most of my automata will have magnets working somewhere.  I’ve prepared a video for you that shows these little shock absorbers in action…including some views in slow motion.  Enjoy.


In August of 2016 I finished building my first street organ.  I took it out in public and all I seemed to hear from people was “Where’s the monkey?”.  So, I went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and purchased a small stuffed monkey and animated it and put it on top of the organ.  This seemed to satisfy people.  Finally, they could relax and listen to the organ music.

I play my street organ in public at least several times a month, and I keep a log book with the organ…where I play, for how long, misc notations about the venue, and I also keep track of repairs that I make.  I’ve played the street organ in public now for about 375 hours.  Doing loose math, this means that I’ve turned the organ crank about 1,000,000 times.  This means that the monkey has raised its arm about 1,000,000 times.  Looking back on it I realize that the Monkey was my first automata.

At the present time I have almost completed the third automata in the Jim’s Gym  series.  I’ve built two Scissor Lifts and am finishing Big Wheel Lift #1.  As I build one of the things that I strive to do is “a good job”.  I don’t want to be building anything that I need to apologize for.  I want to create “strong and reliable” automata.  

When I created the monkey automata I did strive to do a good job…I wanted the monkey to be problem free.  I tried to be careful.  In hindsight I “did good”.  After 1,000,000 million cycles the monkey is still going strong.  And each automata that I create is better than the last.  I am learning how to create strong and reliable automata.

When I show folks the automata that I am creating a common question is “how did you get started doing this?”.  In hindsight I realize that it’s The Monkey That Made Me Do It!

Take a look at the monkey in action.


This is where I create.

The studio has been located in many places over the years.  At this time I’ve got a really good situation located in the third bay of a three car garage.  Here in Southern California that means that I can work in the studio almost year round with the door open.

The primary power tools are a drill press, band saw, scroll saw, 8″ disc sander, shop vac, planer, and a router.  Many many hand tools.  I am finding myself working with tools some of which I’ve owned more than fifty years…and even a couple that my father has passed on to me.  Good tools are a good investment.

I’ve got a rack of perhaps 50 bar clamps…you can never have enough clamps.  I could go on and on about the tools…however the important thing about the work that I do is not the tools, though they are important.  The really important thing is “attitude”.  

  • Do I really care about what I am doing?
  • Am I angry…or calm?
  • Am I in a rush…or is there plenty of time to do it right?
  • Do I have a clear vision of what I am doing?
  • Do I love what I am doing?

I practice Tai Chi for an hour each morning…a good way to start the day…and an indicator to you about my outlook on life.  I design my creations myself.  Frequently I build a design two or three times before I create “the first one”.  Keeping the studio neat and picked-up comes naturally.  Keeping tools in good repair is important.

Here is a YouTube video tour of my studio.  Enjoy.

It takes some of us longer to catch on to certain things.  Me, for example.  I used to think that 1″ marbles (called 1″ Shooters) were all alike…all the same.  When I constructed Scissor Lift #1 I designed and created for 1″ diameter marbles.  And what I found was that some of my marbles would not roll properly…they were too large or, most often, simply not round.

As Scissor Lift #2 is nearing completion my wife and I spent an hour or two exploring and purchasing a variety of 1″ Shooters.  We do this on eBay and have a good time.  The world of marbles is colorful and interesting.  In this case we were wanting to purchase marbles that would go with the color scheme of Scissor Lift #2.

The marbles arrived (faster than expected) and were wonderful.  Of the four different varieties three would work well from the perspective of color.  I started rolling them through Scissor Lift #2 and found that about 80% of the marbles would get hung up and would stop rolling.  As I pondered this situation I realized that I had already known it, but had not realized it.  

The first batch of marbles that I bought were all from one source.  About 80% of them would not run through Scissor Lift #1.  I assumed that it was simply the batch…the manufacturer.  Now what I realize is that it is apparently all marbles that vary a bit in size and that are perhaps a bit out of round.

My conclusion is that if I want 1″ Shooters to properly roll through my machines I need to be designing for 1-1/8″ marbles.  So…I’ve been modifying and at times rebuilding portions of Scissor Lift #2 so that all 1″ Shooters will roll through.  It’s a good thing that I enjoy what I do…else this would be work.

Since Scissor Lift #2 was entirely painted this is a set back in terms of time.  After I modify/reconstruct I’ll need to paint.  Will add about a week to the creation of Scissor Lift #2.  

Life offers many paths.  I believe that at this time I am on my “last” artistic path…the creation of kinetic art in the form of street organs and automata.  I hope to still be creating automata twenty years from now.  Kinetic art has been a passion for me over the years…and now I have the opportunity to focus and create.

The automata that I’m creating at the moment are in a series I call “Jim’s Gym”.  These are rolling marble machines that are designed in the form of gym equipment.  There is a gym club member operating each machine.  These machines will each be a numbered machine in an unlimited series.  These machines begin life in my mind (I design all my automata) and come to life through my hands in my studio.  I am assisted by my wife Cheryl and our golden retriever Cami.

As I write this post I am in the final moments of the creation of Scissor Lift #2.  You see it over my left shoulder.  The biggest problem that I am trying to solve right now is ‘how to market my automata’.  Ideally I would find a gallery that believes in my creations…a gallery that would like to represent me exclusively.  Least desirable but most probable is that I will be marketing my automata myself.  Not a bad thing…not a good thing.  Rather than marketing I would rather be creating.